Malcolm Gladwell denies Lehrer plagiarized him

June 21, 2012

On Tuesday Jim Romenesko ran a post on his blog that showed how Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker’s new staff writer, had copied sections of his previous writing and repurposed them for his recent pieces, verbatim. Bloggers quickly found more instances, including one in which Lehrer appeared not to copy himself, but Malcom Gladwell, another New Yorker staff writer. Gladwell and Lehrer both use the same quote from William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and introduce the quote with the same language.

In a recent Reuters column, Jack Shafer mentioned that allegation. Gladwell, in the comments section, offered his response to the allegation:

In 2006, I quoted a line from William Goldman about how no one knows anything in Hollywood. In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer quotes the same line. This is not surprising, since Goldman’s comment is one of the most famous things ever written about Hollywood and has been quoted, by journalists, probably hundreds of times since it was written. If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.

By the way, if I run across the same absurd allegation anywhere else, I intend to reproduce my comment verbatim. Why? Because I thought about what I wanted to say, I’m comfortable with the way I said it, and I see no reason to tinker with my own language for the sake of tinkering with my own language.

Does Gladwell have a point? In a journalistic era where many writers augment their income with speaking gigs, are writers more responsible for ideas than the exact words that articulate them?

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